Thursday, July 01, 2004


My day in Ann Arbor has been very relaxing. Coffee, newspaper, lunch, a hike in the Arboretum, and meeting friends for bathtub sangria at Casa Dominick's (812 Monroe St.), a wonderful biergarten across from the U-M Law School. The town is fairly quiet, not much is going on, just how I left the place three summers ago.

Apparently, there is a great artistic squabble in preparation for Ann Arbor's nationally recognized art fairs later this month. The poster winner for one of the art fairs is drawing much criticism for being off-the-wall and ugly. More on the art fairs can be found here.

While at Dominick's this afternoon, there was an odd couple sitting on the front terrace. The older man, who was openly paging through a Playboy magazine, was later joined by an older woman (who looked like a mix between Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and South Carolina Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum (D). Together, they paged through a colorful pop-up Kama Sutra guide book. Perhaps if was for a "summer term class."

I'll be back in the District by Friday afternoon.

TRAVEL LOG: Is Grand Rapids Acquiring a Coolness Quotient? The Initial Signs Say Yes.

Her name is Gillian. She wears custom-made furry boots. She is tall, has dyed blond hair and recently was strutting her stuff in a short pink dress. Gillian is sort of a cross between TV’s Jenna Elfman and Marilyn Monroe, where funky ridiculousness meets mystique.

And every Sunday, you can find her at Billy’s (1437 Wealthy St. SE) at the Eastown bar’s popular ‘80s night. And she stands out from the packed end-of-the-weekend crowd.

Packed? Sunday night? In Grand Rapids? Growing up in western Michigan, Sunday has always been reserved for family, not libertinism. And here I was, home on vacation discovering something I never know existed in Calvinist River City: Drunken contrarian hipsters (some wearing authentic trucker hats) dancing to The Smiths, having a good time knowing full well that work awaits them the next morning.

The fact that there is a Sunday night ‘80s night in Grand Rapids violates everything the Protestant work ethic stands for. And it may be the best news for Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan Cool Cities initiative.

In order to keep twentysomethings in the state, the governor has gathered key players in cities across the state to come up with ways to keep intellectual and youth capital from fleeing off the peninsulas. Can Grand Rapids be cool? I had initial trouble grappling that concept, but after visiting home, it seems that Michigan’s second largest city is feeling more and more comfortable being “cool,” depending on the definition you may use.

On the Cusp of Cool, or Post-Cool, Depending How You Look at It. Back at Billy’s, some of the Sunday diehards have been complaining about their fallen angel: their beloved dance night has been inundated by undesireables.

The Calvinist contrarians blame, well, the Calvinist elements (many who don’t go out Saturday nights because of church the next morning, so I’m told) in the crowd for diluting their special place. Others say the music quality has declined. But most of all, it was the Grand Rapidians themselves making the night a popular novelty that has tarnished the dance party’s past authenticity.

“When the local news came by, bye, bye, cool night,” a Billy’s Sunday night diehard told me.

She was referring to when the local ABC affiliate stopped by to profile ‘80s night earlier this spring as part of its “Real Life, Real People” segment. Gillian was used as the B-roll girl for the profile of the coolness factor at Billy’s. She was the symbol of what Grand Rapids isn’t. And it created a buzz. Soon the line to get into ‘80s night stretched down the block. And to some extent, Billy’s lost its authenticity, the diehards say.

But yet, they stay. Part of the reason why they stay is because Billy's is still actually a cool place. But they also stay because there isn’t another place where they can go to find the lost authenticity. This hipster quandary – the recognition that your favorite place has become too cool – is the first sign, dare I say, that Grand Rapids has a coolness quotient and that it is developing urban self-consciousness.

This isn’t necessarily something new. The bar buzz downtown near the Van Andel Arena has hopped from place to place the past five years. The anchor is the Big Old Building, a former railroad warehouse that has been converted to a multi-level, multi-bar, multi-restaurant venture. The streets surrounding the arena, like Ottawa and Ionia avenues, are home to many establishments whose crowds are often tied to arena events.

There is even a new Tiny Bikini’s bar at the corner of Oakes Street and South Division Avenue. It is hard to predict whether a place like Tiny Bikini’s will last in what is still a fairly reserved city, but it’s there, with its bikini girls on the Division Avenue sidewalk wearing sandwich boards to promote their new bar.

But away from the downtown area, the true health of the city’s coolness quotient is measured by the vibrancy of some of the neighborhoods. In Grand Rapids, there is a collection of “midtown” neighborhoods along Fulton, Cherry and Wealthy streets. Eastown, long the heart and soul of Grand Rapids’ small and sedate bohemian community is the main attraction, centered on the intersection of Wealthy Street and Lake Drive. But one local told me that the lack of interesting retail has become an issue for the neighborhood.

“It could be a much better place, but it is what it is and we like it,” the recent college graduate said.

Then north of downtown is a collection of old furniture warehouses along Monroe Avenue. This North Monroe district, along the Grand River, is an emerging neighborhood developmentally-speaking. The 19th century building stock has been converted for loft apartments and new businesses. (Please note that in Washington, we must first build fake warehouses in order to develop loft apartments, e.g. the Lofts in Adams Morgan.) And more is on the way. Then a father-son development team is putting in a residential and commercial tower, adding to neighborhood’s architectural diversity.

What Grand Rapids Has Done Right.
Despite being in a state with high unemployment and in a local area that has been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, the city keeps remaking itself. A new art museum is being built on a Maya Lin-designed central plaza. A new and architecturally innovative convention center has taken up a prominent riverside position. The city’s 19th century building stock is being revamped.

And in its neighborhoods, Grand Rapids has beautified countless streetscapes and has helped property owners improve façades and encouraged new businesses to move into once-depressed corridors. It’s a slow process, but street by street, Grand Rapids has been reshaping itself, giving its residents reason to feel good about their city.

It’s odd growing up in a place and not getting to know its new self after you move away. Grand Rapids’ inherent modesty will keep its profile perpetually off the national radar screen, but River City is nonetheless an interesting study of urban redevelopment and evolving civic consciousness.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

TRAVEL LOG: Next Stop, Ann Arbor

My escape from Washington has been going very well. The weather in Michigan has been beautiful, upper 70s/low 80s, sunny skies, low humidity.

I am currently working on a few extended posts, which I hope to have posted by Wednesday afternoon. One is analyzing Grand Rapids and how it relates to Gov. Jennifer Granholm's "Cool Michigan Cities" initiative. The second is on visiting the John's Day festival, an ancient Latvian celebration to mark the summer solstice. (I'm currently translating the odd and crazy folk lyrics from John's Day songs and dances.)

I saw a news preview on MSNBC (if I remember correctly) on how Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11" has been playing in the heartland. As I left the parking lot of a local cineplex, I overheard a bearded man, as he was climbing into his Astro minivan, say:
"Holy Moley! Man, that movie just stuffed a bunch of shit into my head! A lot of facts!"

I'm not sure if that is the voice of the heartland speaking, but Moore's movie has been has been generating a lot of discussion and deep thought all over Grand Rapids, one of the Midwest's more conservative corners.

My next stop is Ann Arbor. You will probably find me at Casa Dominick's Thursday afternoon drinking sangria, reading a book and enjoying some beautiful weather.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

TRAVEL LOG: Door No. 31543 and the 17-Hour Journey Across Six States

“The only thing I’m worried about is the sewage from the next car.”

About 40 minutes into a 17-hour train ride, this is the last thing you want to hear from Amtrak personnel. Thursday, I took a seat in a coach car of the 5:20 Capital Limited bound for Chicago, near one of the doors linking two double-decker coach cars. And that door was broken.

It was a semi-automatic door. If it had worked properly, you would have pressed a panel (similar to those on newer London Underground trains), the door slides open and after a few moments, it closes again.

This door refused to open like it should (it had to be slid with a little bit of force) and it didn’t shut on its own, leaving the ever-moving and jostling crossover passage open to our car. Along with the noise, it also let in smells.

The sewage warning came from Candice, the Capitol Limited’s dinner reservationist, who was going through the train car booking people for dinner. (I really don’t know what her name was; Candice seems appropriate.) While the couple across the aisle from me was interested in booking a table for their evening meal, they asked Candice whether anything could be done about the door.

“Sir, I can’t hear you!” Candice said in reply to the man’s question about the door.

“Can anything be done about the door?” he asked again, trying to elevate his voice above the clamor from the passageway.

Candice leaned over. “Sir, I can’t hear you,” she repeated pointing to the door.

“I know …”


“The door. We can’t hear anything because of the door,” he said, his voice elevated and annoyed.

“Oh, the door. Yeah I think it’s broken.” Candice said.

Well it was broken and the couple was not pleased.

“Perhaps you can smell the raw sewage now,” Candice, flaring her nostrils, told the couple, an older duo in their late 50s. Her concern was that sewage from the next car would come into our car via wafty breezes generated in the open passage. Apparently, from what she said, the smell would be worse while going through musty damp tunnels of western Maryland and southwest Pennsylvania.

“There isn’t a maintenance man on board. You may want to talk to your attendant about moving.”

“You mean that nothing can be done with the door?” the man asked.

“Naaah, not really, not until Chicago. I’ll see what I can do … Anyone else want a reservation for the dining car?” Candice moved on with her duties. The door wasn’t her concern.

And so began the first leg on my trip to Michigan. The overnight Capital Limited would get me to Chicago, where my parents would pick me up and take me home to Michigan for a few days escape from Washington. But that was six more states away.

Watching Door No. 31543. I could have moved seats. But I decided to stay by the door. The noise wasn’t that unbearable. I thought it would be an interesting observational study of human behavior. To what degree would the door annoy the passengers around me? Would the crew actually do their all to fix it, or make the situation better? With the prospect of the situation not improving, how long would it take for the annoyance to grind away at the civility of our train car?

Not that long.

On the way out of Montgomery County, the couple closest to the door did their best to close it when people were passing through. In fact there was applause when the first person managed to open it, and then pull at the rubber seal inside the door’s slider unit to close it. There was actual glee when that happened.

Then a younger couple in their 30s made their way through. They managed to open the door, but didn’t even think about the possibility that it wouldn’t close. Why would they anyway?

As the younger woman walked by, the woman in the seat across the aisle from me (let’s call her Millie) said, “We’d like that closed,” pointing to the door. “It doesn’t shut, you see?”

The younger woman, her skin stretched and parched by years of cigarette smoking, was taken by surprise and was annoyed. As instructed by Millie, she returned to the doorway, with her boyfriend or hubby, Jim, in tow.

Jim tried to fix the door, with instructions from the peanut gallery.

“You have to pull on it, from the …” Millie yelled across a few seats.

Millie’s husband said, to add some comic relief: “That’s they way we did it in 1895.”

He laughed at his comment. But the younger woman, wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap and annoyed that they were tasked with fixing the door, said “C’mon Jim, let the woman fix it,” referring to Millie.

It seems like she was in need of a cigarette.

The young couple’s escape from the door quandary was aided by Joe, the overly rotund Amtrak attendant, who was doing his rounds in the car, what ever those were. The door wasn’t at the top of his list.

But to be polite, he tried to fiddle with some door key gizmo that switched the door from automatic to manual. There was confusion between Millie and Joe.

“I can’t do it manually,” Joe said.

“Yes, you can see that we’ve been closing it,” Millie said.

“With the open position, I can’t guarantee it’s going to remain closed,” Joe said trying to explain the intricacies of the door unit. When asked if a sign could be placed there, he said he’d do that. But he never did put a sign up, and when he moved through the car on the rest of the trip to Chicago, he never bothered to shut it behind him. We gave up on Candice doing anything, now we gave up on Joe. The annoying door would remain annoying.

If Virginia Is for Lovers, West Virginia Is for Trainspotters. As the Capital Limited pushed along toward the Mountain State, the door problems remained. People had some trouble opening the door, others found it real easy.

A young mother who was holding her child way up on her shoulder -- which looked like it was only a couple weeks old -- tried to figure out the door. It was a tricky balance. And the best she could do was hit the door button. Repeatedly. But to no avail the door could not open by simply hitting it. If she had tried to use her force to slide the door open, she risked dropping her child.

Then Candice came through to rescue. It wasn’t that she saw the mother in need of assistance, she just happened to be passing through announcing that that those passengers with 6:15 dinner reservations should make their way to the dining car for their on-board prepared choice-cut steaks, ravioli primavera and stuffed peppers.

Candice moved on, and the door remained open and I could see the train cars jostle about as they moved along the hilly curves of the Appalachian foothills. As the train moved on its way from Point of Rocks, Md., along the wooded bluffs of the Potomac’s north bank, I got my first whiff of what Candice warned was coming. Imagine three-day’s old garbage, tinged with vinegar and accents of a roadside rest area plagued by state budget cuts. It wasn’t overpowering by any means, but it was there, reminding you that everyone in the world has bowel movements.

The smell started to go away when the train slowed down slightly going past a backwater rail yard where trains for MARC’s Brunswick Line are stored. There were a number of train cars, spattered with graffiti, sitting idly by in the far-off wooded train yard. As the train moved though a series of tunnels in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., wafts of sewage came in.

Soon we crossed an old railroad bridge across the Potomac into Harper’s Ferry, the small junction where John Brown’s 1859 failed slave insurrection came to an end. The train stopped at the station and we were greeted with a bunch of photographers taking photos of our Amtrak Superliner.

In a few moments, the train pulled out from the ancient station. Was this the critical town that exchanged hands some 15 times during the Civil War? One wonders why, as today, the place seems like such a small and forgotten place.

A few minutes outside Harper’s Ferry, the train moved past another handful of trainspotters. People who take photos of trains in New York are considered terrorist risks, but in West Virginia, I’m sure terrorist concerns are the least of concerns. Trainspotters way out there are genuine rail fans, and probably aren’t second guessed when they tell passersby they are taking photos of trains for fun. While renegade groups blew up railroad bridges leading to Harper’s Ferry during the Civil War, it is doubtful that this isolated corner of West Virginia will see action during the war on terror.

As we continued onward, the door continued to cause great stress on the many people who came across it and couldn’t figure out what to do. A family of four was trying to make their way to the sightseeing observation car when they came across the troublesome door.

Everyone in the group was very short. The father, with a knobby balding head, golf shirt and khaki shorts, could see through the door window that the crossover between the cars was extra bumpy as the train passed by some curvy sections.

The father told the family, in a semi-grave tone: “It’s too dangerous. We aren’t doing this.”

“But daddy, when can we go?” his son asked.

I think the real reason was that he couldn’t figure out how to open the door, but blamed the rough seas on the inability to pass through.

“Maybe we can go through tomorrow morning when it will be less bumpy.”

I wasn’t aware one could make train-car-stability predictions as if it was a Weather Channel boat and beach report. But the kid, though disappointed, seemed to buy it. The equally short mother was busy with the other kid looking out the side window at the passing landscape.

“Hon, what’s wrong? Why can’t we go through?”

“It’s too bumpy right now. We aren’t doing this.”

Through some sort of miracle gravitational force, the door slid open. The father, surprised, moved on through with his fam with ease to the next car.

The Sun Sets, And We’re a Long Way From Chicago. As the train approached Cumberland, Md., an announcement came over the public address system giving notice that the layover at western Maryland town would be the only chance to catch a smoke break.

Minutes later, Candice came through with a second warning about the smoke break. “Does anyone in this car smoke?”

It was an odd way of giving a second warning. She said it with such blunt force and intensity, as if she were on a doomed aircraft looking for a pilot to save the day and bring the craft back to earth. I think she really needed a smoke break.

Candice made her way through and went further down the car making the smoke break announcement.

“It seems like she’s encouraging it,” one fellow passenger behind me said.

The sun set when we left Cumberland and we were on our way through southwestern Pennsylvania. We lumbered through the hilly countryside and the landscape disappeared into wooded silhouettes. After the train pulled into Pittsburgh at 1:15 a.m., I decided to try to get some sleep. After we left Pittsburgh and made our way across Ohio, the train picked up speed. I vaguely remember pulling through Cleveland. I woke up as the sun was beginning to rise as we neared Sandusky. The train car was slowing awaking.

We crossed into Indiana by mid morning. At Elkhart, the largest city adjacent to northern Indiana’s Amish country, a whole crew of Amish boarded looking for a bank of seats. Millie was reading the latest AARP magazine with a chipper cover photo of Cybil Shepard when the sight of suspenders, long beards and bonnets took her eyes off of the magazine. Surely, if anyone would have trouble with the broken door, the technologically deficient Amish would freak out and wouldn’t know what to do.

But their fraternal leader easily slide the door open. And then, it shut on its own, as if the Amish had summoned the hands of the Almighty Savior to push the door shut behind them.

Immediately behind them were two women, one with crimped medium-length blond hair, a fluorescent diagonally multi-colored striped shirt and tight jeans. As she shuffled toward the door – she almost shimmied – showing her caboose off to Millie and the rest of the people around me eating a modest breakfast, she hit the door button. And of course, it didn’t open.

“Omigosh! It won’t open,” she said, turning to her friend.

She tried again. It didn’t open. A moping man, with an extreme buzzcut and bushy mustache followed behind them.

“It must have a bolt on it,” he said. He gave it a whirl and got the door open on his third attempt to slide it.

So it goes, the aura of cross-country train travel has lost its allure. Though I wasn’t necessarily in search of it in the first place, I knew that taking the train would present an interesting journey, despite being tired, groggy and feeling very dirty by the time wee arrived in Chicago.

Oddly enough, when the Capital Limited pulled into Chicago’s Union Station (an hour late, let me note), an aging steam locomotive pulling an historic array of decade’s old railcars with sightseeing passengers on some sort of rail-fan trip was pulling out of the station, destination: nostalgia. Photographers were lined up on a viaduct above the railyard documenting the departure.

As I saw the passengers inside that train pointing and taking pictures (one group even waved at us excitedly), I doubt they realized the journey we just had just completed.